By Laura Bartels
Maria’s lashes are wet and smeared, her face puffy and red. Two small children bundled from the cold stand under her protective stance. Like little birds they look up expectantly. Social justice advocate volunteer Cynthia King hands the children a brand new package of colorful markers and some large white paper while Ventura County Juvenile Probation Agency Program Supervisor Kim Shean shepherds Maria to a corner of the now full room. Maria’s husband was crushed to death four days earlier when his pick up truck stalled on the train tracks on a deserted patch of farmland near highway 118. Maria’s grief exacerbates the confusion of death certificates and claim forms. She and her two small children are alone now with no income and no place to live and, as she is not “the farmworker,” her landlords are saying she can no longer live in her house.
Benjamin and Anna arrive once a month with a tattered Vons bag teeming with mail. Both in their 70s, they are recognized by the staff at Fillmore’s Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid. Debora Vierra, who founded the organization in 1996, hugs them warmly. Benjamin and Anna can’t read. Debbie rescues the bills that need to be paid from the stack of junk mail. Benjamin and Anna were two of the victims of a $25 million mortgage fraud ring in Ventura, Los Angeles and San Luis Obisbo counties. They were left with a forged second deed of trust on their home and a bank unwilling to work with the couple. Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid joined forces with the United States Secret Service to assist the pair. The collaboration ended with a prosecution, a conviction and restitution to the Fillmore couple.
“Before this case, I always thought the Secret Service was brooding guys in suits talking into their lapel microphones guarding the President,” says Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid Director Laura Bartels, who is also an attorney in Fillmore. “Now I know that their main function is bank fraud and that their unit was formed in 1865 to combat counterfeiters.”
When the North Fillmore Police Storefront moved broken washing machines out and converted the single story cinderbrick rectangle into a community center in 1995, neighbors embraced the new community emblem of success. Now the storefront provides a place for HeadStart, ESL classes, parenting classes, and the Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid. Unique among legal aid programs, Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid has no regular funding. Donations fund one paid translator. Most of the contributions come from grateful clients. The City of Fillmore allows use of its building rent free. All nine of the organization’s volunteer attorneys give their time and talents and come every Thursday evening at 6 P.M. Five have received the prestigious California State Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award –statewide recognition for their outstanding commitments to the community. These awards were presented personally by the Honorable. Ronald M. George, former Chief Justice of California. Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid’s volunteers have received the Presidential Golden Rule Award, the Fillmore Citizens of the Year, Young Lawyer Awards and the Ventura County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Service Program Awards.
All of Legal Aid’s attorneys are trained to add an educational component when they meet with clients. Not only do they teach about our justice system, but they actively involve the clients in their own cases to give them an “ownership” of outcome. This educational component also helps for future possible legal issues. Some examples include keeping copies of all agreements, obtaining receipts when paying in cash, learning how to keep a record of a clean home to be reimbursed for a rental security deposit, pictures of bruising for victims of domestic violence, and saving paycheck stubs as proof of employment.
“The entire community benefits whenever an illegal eviction is stopped and a family is able to avoid homelessness, when a disabled person qualifies for social disability benefits, whenever a parent receives unpaid child support and can stay off the public welfare rolls,” Vierra says. All of these outcomes result in critical help to the client and in direct government savings.
Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid recently began its 16th year. Thank you to volunteers Debora Vierra, DarAnn Dearing, Robert Guerra, Harvey Guthrie, Kim Shean, Leslie McAdam, David Shea and Cindy Pandolfi for enhancing our Ventura County communities with your work.
Laura Bartels is a partner at Taylor, Scoles & Bartels, a Fillmore-based law firm.